Gabriel Metsu was a founding member of the Guild of Saint Luke in Leiden, the city known for its fijnschilders ('fine painters'), exemplified by Gerrit Dou. Around 1650, Metsu probably spent time in Utrecht, as his paintings from this period resemble the works of Utrecht artists Nicolaus Knupfer and Jan Baptist Weenix, after which he settled in Amsterdam, in 1657. There, he painted scenes of elegant young women in rich interiors in the vein of Gerard ter Borch as well as more rough-hewn figures, among them a group of smokers (Robinson, op. cit., nos. 108-114, pp. 48, 164-6).
In this picture, a man in a brown jacket, white collar and broad-brimmed hat sits at a table smoking a pipe. To seventeenth-century viewers, this subject could evoke vanitas associations, the rapid diffusion of smoke suggesting the transience of life. Metsu, however, suppressed any overt narrative. Rather he emphasised the studied naturalism of the scene, carefully delineating the line of the man's mouth clenching his pipe and the tension in his wrist. As Linda Stone-Ferrier has pointed out, Metsu was inspired by his immediate surroundings: a picture of a smoker now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (inventory no. SK-A-250) includes a barrel bearing the symbol of the Red Stag, a tavern near Metsu's home on the Prisengracht (L. Stone-Ferrier, 'Gabriel Metsu's Vegetable Market at Amsterdam: Seventeenth-Century Dutch Market Paintings and Horticulture', Art Bulletin, LXXI, 1989, p. 448). The figure in this panel -- his pipe, coat with buttons on the sleeve and wooden chair identical to that in the Rijksmuseum picture -- may too have been inspired by a local man.
Metsu's pictures were sought after by the urban elite in the cities where he worked, Leiden and Amsterdam. Yet he also had several noble patrons, including August II, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, who owned an unidentified 'tobacco smoker' (A. Waiboer et al., Gabriel Metsu, New Haven and London, 2010, p. 119). In the eighteenth century, Metsu's fame continued to grow and his paintings were more desirable than those of his contemporary Johannes Vermeer, with whom he exchanged mutual influence (Waiboer et al., op. cit., pp. 29-51).